To Gina With Love
Sam Kahn pens a love letter to playwright Gina Gionfriddo, charting her career, inner world of her plays, and the influence she had over his life and writing.
I think most people who write are familiar with a very particular, very annoying sensation—the writer (usually a generation older) who seems to have your beat covered, who is invested in your themes but has already addressed them with more skill and courage, not to mention success.
For me, starting to write plays in my late twenties, that figure, more than anybody else, was Gina Gionfriddo. I came across her in a database of plays that a friend in an acting MFA program shared with me—a motherlode of contemporary theater that I pored through to try to figure out what other playwrights were doing. She might not have been the absolute best—I thought Annie Baker was a genius and her quiet plays opened up thrilling new vistas for American theater; I was thoroughly intimidated by Mike Bartlett’s mathematically-precise cruelty—but the more I wrote, the more I found that Gionfriddo’s was the voice whispering over my shoulder, saying usually that such-and-such a passage wasn’t cutting it or that such-and-such a passage wasn’t bad, but, as it happened, she had already written it.
At the time, this was circa 2014, she seemed like the main line in American playwriting. She had been a finalist twice for the Pulitzer Prize, had that nice combination of being transgressive but also more or less palatable for an uptown audience, and seemed to be heir to what I took to be the great glory of specifically the American theatrical tradition—the ability to deal with sex openly and unflinchingly and to explore all the dark corners of sexual desire. And then … what?
She had one more play produced, Can You Forgive Her?, which got some of the worst reviews I’ve ever seen (“we cannot forgive the play for a haphazard drama knocked together out of unbelievable situations”; “it looks like a play, talks like a play, and seems to want to be a play”; “Gionfriddo’s talky, tiresome didactic exercise is … a misfire on all levels”) and then she pretty much closed up shop. She had had a day job writing what she calls “murder television” and she tunneled into that—writing for shows like Law and Order and The Alienist on TNT and working her way up to a credit as Co-Executive Producer. A film she wrote for HBO was dropped after eight (!) years of development.
For this article, I was asked to come up with a “timely peg” to write about for Gionfriddo, and there actually are plenty of them. After Ashley, first produced in 2004, astutely anticipated the explosion of true crime as a genre. The pained discussion of gender in Rapture, Blister, Burn speaks to what I think of as “Lana Del Rey feminism”—the idea that there can be a feminism without either sanctimony or finger-wagging judgment, “a true feminism,” as Lana Del Rey put it, “where a woman does exactly what she wants.” And Gionfriddo’s tendency to see all of America as a giant reality show was more than materialized in Trump. But really what I’m interested in with Gionfriddo is the opposite of timely pegs—roads not taken, opportunities lost, the near-impossibility of making a career in theater even for a supremely gifted, widely lauded playwright.
Up to a certain point, Gionfriddo’s career unfolded pretty much exactly how an American playwright’s was supposed to. She grew up in Washington, D.C. (she describes herself as “a really macabre little gothette of a child” who terrorized her family by reading books on Ted Bundy at the beach while her friends were reading Danielle Steel, and then, as a teenager, underwent the “subtle transition from peripheral girl to strange loser”). She survived a “loathsome” experience at a Catholic school, went to Barnard, did an internship at Primary Stages with the idea of being an actor but switched after not too long to writing. She can actually, she says in my interview with her, remember the exact moment when she realized she could be a writer—she had written a sketch for Columbia’s cable access channel and, standing in the wings, overheard somebody saying “Who wrote that? That’s really good.” She remembers also the startling discovery that she was funny—there was no sign of it, she insists, in her childhood or adolescence, but she “went through some tough times medically and psychiatrically … and became a gallows humor person at some point.”
While at Primary Stages, she met Mac Wellman—who really was the fairy godfather for Gionfriddo’s generation of playwrights and who suggested that she apply to Brown’s MFA program. She studied there with Paula Vogel, wrote plays that were incredibly dark, hysterical treatments of the American nexus of violence and entertainment. It’s characteristic of the responses she was generating at that time that one literary manager—from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre—contacted her regarding her play Blue Nation to say that it was a terrific play but not something that the Goodman “would ever do.” In the years after graduation, Gionfriddo stayed in Providence, working in subsistence jobs, but managed to establish a kind of power base between the O’Neill Playwrights Conference and the Humana Festival. She kept winning writing competitions and impressing literary managers and finally, in her mid-thirties, After Ashley was, as Wellman put it, the “dark horse” of the 2004 Humana Festival—and, most crucially, the New York Times called it “a genuine discovery,” which gave producers the nerve to stage it in New York.
With that, Gionfriddo was made. An executive producer from Law and Order was impressed by Gionfriddo’s ability to write regular Americans (and must have been staggered by her encyclopedic knowledge of serial killers) and liberated her from the service industry with a day job writing for television. And After Ashley, Becky Shaw (2008), and Rapture, Blister, Burn (2012) all went on to have very successful, critically-acclaimed off-Broadway runs, while both Becky Shaw and Rapture, Blister, Burn received Pulitzer Prize nominations.
So—everything had gone exactly as well as it possibly could have. Gionfriddo’s career seemed set, she was on track to achieve the holy grail of American playwriting success: she’d enjoy a couple of Broadway runs, a cushy academic post from which she could pontificate about playwriting, and high-profile grants galore to fund her work ad infinitum. All in the bag, right?
I don’t have any overriding theory as to why, from the peak of her success, Gionfriddo had only one more play produced and was then, essentially, booed offstage. There’s a sense that she was always a bit heretical—she dealt with female cruelty and manipulation in ways that audiences found uncomfortable but forgivable in U.S. Drag and Becky Shaw but were not willing to condone by the time of Can You Forgive Her?. And it may just be a kind of iron law of American theater that at some point audiences turn on the playwrights—and leave it for another generation to rediscover the value in what they’ve discarded.
When that examination happens, this, I think, is what audiences and readers will find in Gionfriddo:
- That, better than any contemporary artist I can think of, her plays express the national and sexual neuroses of our peculiarly deranged era—and, in particular, the ways that shlock and prurience create their own twisted realities;
- That she dealt intelligently and very funnily with the dark side of female sexuality—rape fantasies, patterns of dominance and submission, the erotic thrill of violence, the ready-at-hand satisfactions of manipulation; topics that are verboten to most writers or are utilized for their shock value but are just part of the air that’s breathed throughout Gionfriddo’s fictional universes;
- That she figured out a playwriting technique for making theater a kind of funhouse mirror of the culture-at-large, with her characters always half in grim daily life and half off in some ghoulish fantasy, some reality-show-of-the-collective-unconscious—and that she was able to write characters who were both smart and verbally dexterous enough to understand how these different worlds inform each other.
Gionfriddo’s quartet of mature plays—After Ashley, U.S. Drag, Becky Shaw, Can You Forgive Her? (I’m deliberately excluding Rapture, Blister, Burn, which Gionfriddo herself concedes veers in the direction of “book club” and which strikes me, honestly, as being more or less an effort to cash in)—all share very similar characteristics and, in a gorgeously textured way, seem to inhabit different corners of the same world. They start always in indeterminate moments—a mother and son talking over the television while the son is home sick from school; a man stuck while unpacking his mother’s boxes—and the class markers are always similarly unsettled (the ostensibly well-off are always hopelessly in debt, the educated are constantly envious of blue-collar workers with solid incomes, everybody is always looking to cash in somewhere). The feeling is of a society that’s deeply frayed—and comfort, peculiarly, comes from a fascination with horror and violence (but always just far enough out of reach that it seems cozy).
After Ashley, her breakthrough, opens with the mother, Ashley, and fourteen-year-old son, Justin, watching television—Ashley bored out of her mind by housewifery and eager to overshare her sex life with her son. That dynamic is abruptly undercut when the piously liberal father, Alden, hires a paranoid schizophrenic to do the yardwork and the schizophrenic, in short order, murders Ashley. Justin’s 9-1-1 call is sampled into a hit rap song and the event becomes just another made-for-TV crime story. Justin, now 17, is hit on by macabre-minded college girls, and Alden swiftly gets past any lingering scruples he has to host a crime-themed cable TV show. So, apparently, a windfall for everybody involved, except that Justin has this nagging feeling that “I don’t know what the aftermath of [the murder] is supposed to be but I don’t think it’s supposed to be a book and a TV show and a rap song and a girl in my room”—and decides that, to save his mother from the sanctimony blanketing her, he has to destroy her reputation, reveal her to be the cynical, funny sex maniac that she really was.
If After Ashley reads like a cry for help from a culture simultaneously overrun by sanctimony and by shlock, U.S. Drag is a giddy exploration, more directly farcical than Gionfriddo’s other plays, of what it’s like to inhabit that culture while almost perfectly unconstrained by integrity. Two attractive twins, Allison and Angela , are on the make in New York City and refreshingly free of filters of any sort. The characters they meet on their merry way include a self-absorbed novelist (“like a never-ending cycle of oozing and tending”), a Wall Street banker who lets them crash with him on condition that they organize parties, which they have no intention of doing (“your problem is that you expect too much, we can’t be out all night and fascinating after we’ve been working all day”), and a coalition of the bored-and-lurid overly fascinated with a maybe serial killer. It sounds like it wouldn’t add up to much, but Allison and Angela’s ids are so pure, they’re so guileless in their greed (“I want to do nothing and get money and have people know who I am”; “I can’t wait till I’m fifty, I want a lot while I’m still pretty enough to enjoy it”) that everybody else they encounter comes across as self-righteous and self-deluding by comparison.
Becky Shaw is supposed to be Gionfriddo’s first fully mature play, with less of the cabaret feeling of the other two. I actually find it to be a bit sloppier—various subplots with the Slater family don’t really cohere—but the play has the most clearly defined conflict in any of Gionfriddo’s work. Sharp-witted, sharp-tongued Max is set up on a very ill-conceived date with Becky, a shy, pretty office temp whose life seems to have run aground. They’re mugged on the date. Max, who from the beginning had decided that Becky was beneath him, feels himself not at all obliged to return Becky’s increasingly desperate calls asking for help and support. “The next time you try to kill yourself I would like you to try harder” is only the cruelest of many cruel lines he has for her, but Becky, apparently timid and vulnerable, is curiously undeterred—and, in her way, even more ferocious than Max. “We have damage,” she tells Max. “People like Andrew and Suzanna will always run from us when we show them who we are. I see everything you are and I’m still here.”
Audiences seemed to fragment into furious disagreement about Becky—the host of Theater Talk during an interview of Gionfriddo announced, much to Gionfriddo’s surprise, that Becky was “a monster”—and the lesson, as I took it, was that audiences in an avowedly feminist era simply didn’t know what to do with a character who was shy but also manipulative, who used weakness as her strength. If audiences were hard on Becky, though, they were merciless to Miranda, the heroine of Can You Forgive Her?. Miranda has, without doing anything particularly outrageous (“good schools and good living baby”), racked up an enormous amount of debt and is managing it through a pair of sugar daddies. She finds herself in a pickle—one sugar daddy chasing another—but the real issue turns out to be that the men in her life are simply losing interest in her. The play as a whole is basically a ganging-up against Miranda, who is smart, funny, in touch with her sexuality, but is badly out of step with the brutal financial realities of present-day America (“If you want to go two hundred thousand dollars in debt to be a doctor, that’s one thing. To do it reading poetry is irresponsible.” / “I know, Tanya. I should be executed.”) To my mind, Can You Forgive Her? was a nice continuation of the themes of the rest of Gionfriddo’s work, just advanced to middle age, with desperation dialed up and with some unlikely, beautifully tender alliances made on the far shore of failure, but that’s the minority opinion. “Woefully underappreciated,” is how Gionfriddo, speaking to me, describes Can You Forgive Her?.
So, look, there’s not much point in feeling bad for Gionfriddo—she’s had as good of a career as any American playwright can hope to have (and she’s quick to point out that she’s had some astonishingly lucky breaks to get there). The Law and Order spinoffs may not be for everyone, but they seem to suit her Miss Marpleish streak—and they’ve allowed her to survive for years in New York as a creative and a single parent. She doesn’t have a play at the moment but thinks—although she’s not certain—that there’s “still a place for [her] in theater.” Nevertheless, I can’t shake the feeling that something has been lost which is ineffable and goes well beyond Gionfriddo. Gionfriddo is as good as we have; a theater that can’t retain a talent like hers, that can’t reward her achievement, is a broken theater.